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5 Reasons Why Torture Does Not Work and Can Never Be Justified

Torture is one of the most extreme forms of human violence, resulting in both physical and psychological consequences. It has been used for thousands of years and it is still occurring throughout much of the world. The right to freedom from torture is a universally recognized human right and one of the foundations of international law. Torture, as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, is banned in all times and cannot be justified.

The most precise definition of torture is outlined in the UN Convention Against Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which defines it as “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Even though torture is internationally outlawed and illegal, many countries and armed group still use it. In fact, many countries have failed to criminalize torture and other forms of ill-treatment under their national laws and continue to defy international law by applying various torture methods. Therefore, this article offers an overview of five reasons why torture should be banned and why it does not work as an appropriate method of punishment.

1 Torture is an Ineffective Interrogation tool

States often use torture methods to extract confessions or certain type of information from people. However, often information gained through torture are not reliable. Usually, the application of physical, mental and psychological pressure forces victims of torture to say or confess anything just to end the painful experience. According to some psychologists, the stress caused by torture will most often affect parts of the brain associated with memory and force victims to lie or repeat information they heard from their torturers. This, basically, means that interrogators may unintentionally plant false memories in victims and compromise their cognitive functions which are key in obtaining accurate information.

Therefore, information obtained through torture is not reliable because victims will often say what their torturers want to hear to make the pain stop. For example, detainees who are physically abused during an interrogation might accuse someone else of their deeds, hoping they will be tortured instead. Additionally, detainees might often tell lies simply because they do not have information that interrogators are asking them for.

Legally, the absolute prohibition of torture and other-ill treatment is non-derogable. This means that torture methods cannot be used even in times of emergency. Confessions and information obtained through torture, thus, do not count as evidence under international law. However, in many countries today, torture and other forms of ill-treatment are used to obtain information usually from detainees or suspects for committed crimes.

Evidence, information or confessions obtained through torture are not legally recognized in both international and national laws for the simple fact of torture not being scientifically proven. As previously mentioned, a person will say or do anything under torture or even under a threat of torture to avoid the pain. One such example was provided by the Amnesty International that reported on the case of torture that took place in 2012 when “Mexican marines broke into Claudia Medina’s home and took her to the local navy base where she was given electric shocks, wrapped in plastic and beaten, and forced to inhale chilly.” Medina later stated that if she had not been tortured, she would have not signed the statement.

This results in uncertainty whether information that a person provided is true or not. Thus, all states should consider other, more reliable ways, to collect information while applying principles of humanity and respecting human rights.

2 Torture Causes Psychological and Physical Trauma

Torture methods used on victims can be of both physical and psychological nature, such as prolonged solitary confinement or sleep deprivation. Both psychological and physical torture complement each other causing severe pain to people who were affected by it. Infliction of physical torture is in most cases reflected in psychological consequences.  Applying torture methods of these types on someone can directly damage their memory and cause an extreme psychological trauma. For example, if affected by one of these methods, victims may become so mentally broken that they might not even remember simple things such as their home address. Similarly, victims who are deprived of sleep may become confused and disoriented, which can cause them to convince themselves in things interrogators are suggesting them and, in this way, produce false information. By being tortured in this way, victims’ memory, emotions, and an ability to deploy attention is deeply degraded causing severe psychological trauma, post-traumatic stress and depression.

However, infliction of torture methods does not cause psychological trauma only to victims, but also to the torturers. Most often, state authorities and politicians who support torture are not the ones who inflict it personally. They leave to others to enforce their policies and apply torture methods, which affects them on a psychological level by being rooted deeply within their brain circuit. This means that both victims and perpetrators face a range of devastating psychological consequences.

The use of torture physically destroys people. Torture methods, such as sham executions, rape, sexual assaults, humiliation and sleep deprivation often leave physical consequences on affected persons such as chronic pain in certain parts of body and inability to lead a healthy and prolonged lifestyle. For this reason, people who had been affected by torture should have access to redress such as medical care, reintegration into society, rehabilitation and counseling.

3 Torture is Illegal and Cannot Be Justified

When states and governments use torture to achieve their goals, they often see it as necessary to provide some type of justification for its implementation. Governments and politicians must find ways to excuse and explain the use of torture, while those who publicly advocate for it must find arguments that would justify torture as a practice that is globally and universally regarded as immoral and condemned.

From a legal perspective, the use of torture is never justifiable because it is illegal in international law, as well as in majority national and domestic laws, such as within the UK Human Rights Act adopted in 1998 which states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

The prohibition of torture is enshrined in many conventions and declarations within the international human rights and humanitarian law. For example, in the Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is enshrined that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Similarly, it was established by the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols that serious violations of international humanitarian law, including torture and other inhuman treatment, constitute war crimes in both international and non-international armed conflicts.

As already mentioned, perhaps the most significant international law instrument used to combat torture is the Convention Against Torture, or the CAT. Most of countries in the world have signed and ratified the CAT and other international human rights treaties and conventions. The CAT came into force in 1967 and it requires that countries take active steps to prevent torture and that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Thus, the prohibition of torture is a fundamental principle of international law, and it applies to all countries, even the ones that have not signed or ratified the CAT.

4 Torture Bears Legal Consequences

Inflicting torture on someone does not end without consequences. Both international and national law instruments oblige countries and governments to search for persons suspected to have committed torture acts and bring them before justice. Countries have a duty to enact legislation that prohibits acts of torture and other forms of ill-treatment and punish those who commit them and those who order them to be committed. Individual perpetrators, thus, can be held criminally responsible for committing these crimes.

According to the Article 4 of the CAT, all countries must ensure that all acts of torture are regarded as offences under their criminal law, including attempts to commit torture and any acts by any person that constitute participation or complicity of torture. States are obliged to punish these acts in an appropriate manner, as well as to establish jurisdiction over the acts of torture where the offences are committed in any territory under their jurisdiction, or where the alleged offender or the victim is a national of the country. Additionally, countries are obliged to search for persons suspected to have committed acts of torture and make torture an extraditable offence in any extradition treaty they sign with other country.  As already mentioned, torture methods are ineffective interrogation tool and evidence extracted from torture cannot be used as evidence. Under Article 15 of the CAT, any statement made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceeding, unless it is used against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.

5 Torture is Immoral

There is a common misconception that generally torture is linked solely to issues of counter-terrorism and national security due to high profile torture cases around the world. However, according to research conducted by the Amnesty International, torture can happen to anyone, including people from ethnic minorities, student activists, protesters, petty criminals, and to those people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In most cases it is marginalized and poor people who get beaten, raped by police and humiliated, with no one to hear their cries for help and help them.

It does not take long for one to conclude that torture acts are cruel, immoral and dehumanizing. According to advocates against torture, torturers rather treat as a thing than a person. That means that they dehumanize their victims to make it easier to torture them. Torturers use the physical body of the victim as a tool to achieve their goals and not as component part of a person. They also use torture to destroy the autonomy of the victim. For example, some societies have use different torture methods to suppress independent and individual thinking and force people to adopt the desired way of thinking. In these cases, victims are tortured until they accept to abandon their own belief systems and views and adopt those of their torturers. Torture, in this way, violates the human dignity and rights of the victim. However, the acts of torture do not only harm the victims, but it also damages the moral reputation of the government and institution that carries it out. The use of torture by an institution can lead to internal dissent and damage its integrity.

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About the author

Ada Hasanagic

Ada Hasanagić is a human rights professional currently working as a researcher at the Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Previously, Ada graduated with honors from the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology and the University of Buckingham in the fields of Political Science and International Relations. Also, she earned a master’s degree in Democracy and Human Rights from the University of Sarajevo and University of Bologna.